Millions of American families travel to the country’s national parks, especially during the busy summer seasons. But the good news is that fall is on the horizon, and it’s a great time to avoid the crowds and find good deals, too. And while major parks like the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone may get the lion’s share of these visits, there are many other incredible but lesser-known parks around the country to consider. We caught up with Will Shafroth, president of the National Park Foundation, the official non-profit partner of the National Park Service, to find out his favorite under-the-radar finds. He also shared some tips and tricks for finding unique experiences, plus ways that travelers can help preserve and protect these national treasures.
1/12 Voyageurs National Park – Minnesota
When you think of stunning waterscapes, places like Acadia National Park in Maine and Olympic National Park in Washington likely come to mind. Yet Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota offers some of the same activities with a fraction of the crowds. Almost half the park is water, with more than 500 islands and 655 miles of undeveloped shoreline. As someone who grew up in the Rockies, lived near the mountains of California and adventured in Alaska, I can tell you that Voyageurs is like no place else
Don’t Miss: Camp near Kabetogama Lake, for the incredible quiet. At Voyageurs, you can wrap yourself in quiet that is both comforting and exhilarating. We’re not talking complete silence, but rather a silence that gives you space to enjoy the calls of wildlife from miles around.
2/12 Point Reyes National Seashore – California
Point Reyes National Seashore is just an hour north of San Francisco and offers a variety of incredible outdoor activities, including hiking, biking, body surfing, kayaking, fishing, gathering berries, foraging for wild mushrooms and digging for clams.
Don’t Miss: Hike through the tall Douglas Fir groves, see local wildlife like the harbor seals and learn how to bodysurf while the pelicans fly by in formation.
3/12 Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve – Colorado
The tallest sand dunes in North America, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve offers hiking, wilderness camping and exploring. It’s also one of the best parks for stargazing; with its dry air, little light pollution and high elevation, visitors can see thousands of stars, explore the dunes under a full moon without a flashlight and listen for owls.
Don’t Miss: See beautiful fall foliage across the aspens at Medano Pass or cool off on a hot summer day at Medano Creek, one of the only places in the world where visitors can experience “surge flow.”
4/12 Channel Islands National Park – California
Isolated from the mainland, the Channel Islands offer a glimpse into ancient California, with precious archaeological sites and endangered ecosystems found nowhere else on earth. The national park is great for hiking, snorkeling, diving and more.
Don’t Miss: At Cathedral Cove and Landing Cove, visitors can see sea stars, sea urchins and colorful fish. Learn more about the park via NPF’s website and with Hamilton star Jordan Fisher in this 360 tour.
5/12 Crater Lake National Park – Oregon
Most people know Crater Lake, the deepest lake in the US, for its namesake body of water, but there are lots of other activities, including hiking and camping.
Don’t Miss: Garfield Peak is one of the more heavily trafficked trails in the park, but to avoid the crowds and witness the unique beauty of the park, try hiking the trail before dawn to watch the sunrise over the rim of the crater. You can find out more about Wizard Island (a volcano inside of a volcano!) in this 360 video of singer/songwriter Dierks Bentley exploring the park.
6/12 Cape Hatteras National Seashore – North Carolina
Cape Hatteras National Seashore is a great place to relax on the beach with family, kayak, climb the historic lighthouse and learn about the Pea Island Lifesavers, the first all-black life-saving crew.
Don’t Miss: In the summertime, female loggerhead and green turtles will nest and lay eggs on the shores of Cape Hatteras. The public is often invited to watch the nest excavations after the sea turtles have hatched, when biologists examine the nests for eggshells or unhatched eggs, and educate visitors on sea turtles.
7/12 Mesa Verde National Park – Colorado
Tour the largest cliff dwelling in North America, Cliff Palace, home to the ancestors of the Puebloan people.
Don’t Miss: With very little light pollution, Mesa Verde is an amazing place for stargazing. We recommend Montezuma or Mancos Overlooks for the best stargazing (but you can’t stay overnight), or Morefield Campground for overnight stargazing.
8/12 Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve – Louisiana
Just outside of New Orleans, visitors to Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve can explore the history and natural environment of the New Orleans area, including seeing snakes, turtles and alligators at the Barataria Preserve, learning about the 1815’s Battle of New Orleans at the Chalmette Battlefield, joining a Cajun cooking demonstration at the Prairie Acadian Cultural Center or enjoying Cajun art and music at the Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center.
Don’t Miss: Travel to New Orleans promises a “two for one” of unique national park experiences and both parks are free admission. Just a 30-minute drive from Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve is New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, a park entirely devoted to jazz.
9/12 Mississippi National River and Recreation Area – Minnesota
The park stretches along 72 miles of the Mississippi River Corridor in Minnesota and is great for hiking, biking, boating and more.
Don’t Miss: Winters in Minnesota offer unique opportunities to explore the Mississippi River, including snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and ice fishing.
10/12 Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve – Idaho
Craters of the Moon’s terrain is so similar to other planets that NASA brought Apollo 14 astronauts to train there before going to the moon. Today, NASA scientists continue to study Craters of the Moon to draw important conclusions about the geology of our planet and others.
Don’t Miss: Check out one of the largest basaltic cinder cones in the world — Big Cinder Butte. The park also has many other unique geological features that resemble moon craters.
11/12 Bandelier National Monument – New Mexico
At Bandelier, visitors can explore cave dwellings and learn about the Ancestral Pueblo people. It offers similar experiences to Mesa Verde, with less crowds.
Don’t Miss: Just 12 miles outside the main section of the park is Tsankawi, an Ancestral Pueblo village of the Ancestral Tewa Pueblo people, whose descendants live in the nearby San Ildefonso Pueblo. Tsankawi features panoramic views of the Jemez and Sangre de Cristo mountains, petroglyphs and more.
12/12 Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore – Indiana
Indiana Dunes offers 15,000 acres and more than 50 miles of trails for hiking, wildlife viewing, biking, horseback riding and other outdoor activities.
Don’t Miss: From October 4-6, 2019, the park will host the Outdoor Adventure Festival, which historically has brought together dozens of activities across a three-day event, including geo-cashing, yoga, birding and backpacking. Continue to check the NPS site for registration information.